Monday, 27 February 2012

You got an expat friend in me.

Hey look! Isn't someone who lies in front of steam trains exactly the kind of person you want to be friends with? No? Really?? Oh, well can we be friends anyway if I promise not to do that too often?

Ages ago I started a post about expat friendships. They are funny things you see. I started off by saying:

It would be a ginormous overstatement to say "I'm in love!", but you know that feeling of excitement you get when you think of the person that you've just met where you get butterflies in your stomach and you can't help but exclaim in your head "Woo hoo!!!!!!!!!!!"? Well, I feel a little like that. But, before you get ahead of me, I haven't traded Stevie in for one of those extra-tall Germans who have to bend in half to get on the U-Bahn, alas, no (though I dream of having one of those who understands what it says in all these letters I have to open and can gracefully steer me away from mistakenly ordering pig trotter stew with innard salad without having to carry round a German-English dictionary).

No, I have found a new friend. Or rather, as is the normal way of things in Fiona/Stevie world: Stevie found me a new friend in the swing park. I don't normally mention my friends in my blog; I'm not sure they are the types of people who like being flashed around the internet willy-nilly, and well, it seems a little unfair to write about them somehow. But I felt compelled to write about my new friend. I've been thinking a bit about friendship in foreign lands. Especially after another friend (also an expat) and I were talking about it.

The thing is, I have realised that friendship as an expat can be quite a different thing. For starters there's the language barrier. If like me, your foreign language skills are somewhat limited, it can be pretty difficult to develop friendships with native speakers. Once you've told them that they're not allowed to mount an aerial on their roof and asked after their mother's constipation and the failing brakes on her car, well, there's not much else to talk about. Especially if they're not willing to play out the part of the other person who is looking for a light for their cigarette as they hitchhike their way to Erfurt. So if you strike all the native speakers off your list, you're left with the people who speak your own language. And that can be a relatively small pond to fish from.

I know I am still lucky. I live in the capital city which frankly is awash with foreigners, and not only that, I speak English which is great. Admittedly, I wouldn't say no to speaking Turkish and Russian as well, but that's just not going to happen anytime soon

- and that's as far as I got with this post. I got distracted by nights out and parties and friendship-bracelet making sessions, etc, etc, and I forgot all about it. But allow me to continue. The thing I was going to say about expat friendships is that you have a smaller 'pond' of people from which to choose your friends and that is not always a bad thing. I have made friends with people who 'back home' I would probably not have given a chance to and therefore would have missed out on the different things that they can bring to a friendship. I've made friends with some very different, but very interesting people, so if there's one thing to take out of this foreign experience it's that I will hopefully be more open to making friends from all walks of life and not necessarily just go for people who on the surface seem 'my type'. Don't get me wrong, there have still been people who we have met and gone out with and thought afterwards that we just didn't like enough to want to hang out with- that's just life. But what I think we all hope for, is that we meet someone who shares our ideals, our sense of humour, or likes and dislikes, our cultural history perhaps: someone in other words who might just be a perfect friend.

It's easy to make friends in the same situation as yourself. All us expats thrown in together soon find each other and it's a bit like when you join a baby group when you have your first child, you meet a whole bunch of other people in exactly the same position and find you have tons to talk about, moan about, understanding shoulders to cry on, new experiences to bumble through together and laugh about, and it's all good. But sometimes somewhere along the line when the kids are out of nappies, and you've got more settled into your expat life, you realise that maybe you don't have as much in common with some of these people as you have thought and a few fall away from the group and move on, and that's fine. Chances are you will have met a few people who will be lifelong friends.

The downside of expat friendships is that people do move on, literally. Most English speakers I meet in Berlin are here for a couple of years, usually 5 at most. I meet very few people who are 'here for good'. Unless they have married a German that is. Some people struggle with the temporary nature of these friendships. But, it's not so bad. With Facebook and the internet in general, blogs included, it is much easier to keep in touch with people wherever they are in the world.

More recently though I discovered that some expats can be a bit brutal in their networking for friendships. I came to realise that someone who I thought was a good friend was actually not that interested in being 'my' friend but just wanted to use me in order to meet my other friends. Another friend told me this is not uncommon, and she has often found that newcomers attempt to make friends through her, though they may not be interested in her as a friend. She seemed to take this as just par for the course, but it all seems a bit callous to me. She suggested to me that my bad experience might have come about because the person knew that I was due to leave Berlin at the end of May. She says that she knows a few expats whose first question on meeting new people is "How long are you here for?", and if it doesn't meet some acceptable length of time in their head, then they don't bother any further with that person. I kind of get it, but I can't help but think that they might be missing out on meeting some potential good friends, and having some good times. Or maybe, just maybe, the other person has just had a lucky escape.

It seems that this is quite a common trait amongst expats. People feel that it's not worth their while investing in temporary friendships, and get bored repeating their story to a seemingly endless queue of transient friends. I read a post on another blog where the author talks of the superficial nature of expat friends, and discusses how expats often put other expat friendships on 'PAUSE' as soon as friends from home come to visit or someone more interesting comes along. But isn't that always the case. For someone like me who has always lived my adult life away from 'home' having friends or family to visit was never usually a case of a quick half hour out of my day and more often a weekend or a few days, and so because I saw them less often it seemed more important to spend all my time with these people even if that meant putting local friendships and plans on hold. So I am not sure that I entirely agree with that being an aspect of the transience or superficiality of these friendships.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting topic. What's been your experience of expat friendships? I'd love to hear all about it.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Pirate eyepatch comes in handy...yarr!

"Aaaaarrrrggghhhhh!!! I can't see! I can't see!" I appear to have sustained an eye injury during a game of 'Round & round the garden, like a teddy bear..' Hamish was having a shot doing me, and on his "One step, two steps" bit he went a bit mad on the tickle and instead gouged my eyeball with some (probably filthy) fingernails. 3 hours later and it's still killing me.

For the boys

For the girls

Lucky then that I had the foresight to run up Orla's party bags last night (all 18 of them in only about an hour!). I'm only posting about this because I feel so chuffed with myself with making something that's prettier than a printed plastic party bag while also saving money. The fabric I bought in IKEA about a year ago and was planning on using for 'something' but aside from making a drawstring tights bag for Orla, I've not done much else.

So my preparations for Orla's Princess & Pirate party are coming along nicely. It is becoming the most 'homemade' party I think we've ever had. I quite like that actually. If I had a badge making kit, I'd be even happier. Next up I plan on making the invites...while wearing a pirate eyepatch on my right eye. Though I hope I am not rocking this look until the end of March. Seriously. It's killing me.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Exciting things to look forward to..

I have been nice and ill over the past few days. It's been both horrid and pleasant. Horrid being ill, but rather nice to have the luxury of actually lying in bed and being ill. Anyway, aside from being able to watch back to back episodes of Masterchef, I have been able to have a think about the possible move back to the UK. My list of positives has grown:-

1. I can park the car facing any direction I like in the street, so there. And I shall. Just because I can. Though I will lose the privilege of parking 'Berlin-style' unless I want the car towed. Schade..

Really, I am a Berliner at heart. I can't be arsed reverse parking either. 

2. I won't need to wait for the green man when crossing the road, though it's highly likely I will continue to stand waiting until until the green man tells me it's safe to walk because I have been successfully re-programmed. I will however use this knowledge when I see people standing by traffic-free roads waiting to cross as a way of identifying German expats (potential friends).

AARRGGGHH! To walk or not to walk?? I have given up the ability to look up & down the road and judge if it's safe to cross for myself. Where's the Tufty Club when I need it??

3. I will no longer have to bank with the Commerzbank. Though god knows I will no doubt miss their charming ways. I am not entirely comfortable slagging off a company in a public place, but well, they deserve it. I have had more bank cards from them in the past 2 years than I have had in the rest of my banking life. Even if you include the Mr Spendy passbook I had as a kid, I am now into double digits with the number of EC cards they have cancelled on me. They are convinced it's my fault (even though my UK cards still work just fine and they are nestled in together) and the last time I was told that it was most likely my "cheap jewellery (female bank clerk helpfully points to the silver Tiffany necklace I am wearing) causing it to de-magnetise", or else I "need to buy a better bag" because my Orla Kiely obviously just isn't good enough for their cards...(!?). Not that she was sitting there exactly dripping in De Beers diamonds herself, but I can admire a woman who can wield her banking power and admonish the customers for their poor purchasing choices. Though Germany better be careful: with bank clerks like her encouraging people like me to go spending the mortgage money on diamonds and Hermes bags.

Though if they want to 'help' me upgrade, I would be happy with this. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

1000 steps round.... Berlin Zoo

One of the places that has featured a lot in our lives over the past year and three quarters is the Berlin Zoo. Given that it's only 10 minutes walk from our apartment, it's close enough to warrant regular visits and the cost of the annual pass is very reasonable when you consider that it's not only provided education and entertainment for me and the kids, but has also been my main source of photographic ID in Berlin. The German authorities might not recognise my (supposedly) global health insurance card, but a flash of my Berlin Zoo card has allowed me to drop my kids off in a creche, collect parcels, rent DVD's, and generally get me past the kind of German administration barriers which normally see me having to return home, pick up my passport, and go through it all again. It wouldn't surprise me if I could fly with it: "Oh, you're with the Berlin Zoo? Well, why didn't you say? No passport required!".

The Aquarium entrance from inside Berlin Zoo with the ceramic frieze on the inner stairwell.

Now I should be an authority on animals by now, but the truth is, when we first arrived there was a lot of whooshing past a lot of the animals in order to see "more!". The kids, then 2 and 3 years old, were just keen to see everything at lightening speed, and it didn't really matter as I could come every day of the year if I wished. These days the kids seem almost jaded by it all. When you see tigers more often than you see regular cats, it's hard to get whipped up into a frenzy.

But it's a lovely place to visit. It's beautifully laid out, and the zoo architecture is pretty special.

"As a field, the architecture of zoos is a funny thing. The difficulty in distinguishing it from the design of individual animal enclosures lies in the fact that each impacts the other in almost every case.  [...] Zoo buildings instead usually reflect a negotiation between prevailing notions of an animal's best interests, and the desire to frame visitors' experience of looking at those animals in a way that they consider noteworthy. More simply, it's a negotiation between what's designed for animals, and what's designed for humans.

Berlin Zoo's Ostrich House (image via 'The Smart Set') 

You can usually tell which is winning by where and when you stand in the history of the zoo. European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated the visual cultures of their animals' native homes into ornate buildings — reflections of their nations' colonial aspirations. The Berlin Zoo's ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple, with large columns flanking the entrance and scenes of ostrich hunts decorating the exterior. Berlin's elephant enclosure was built in the spirit of a Hindu temple; the home for its giraffes adopted an Islamic architectural style. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest, among others, created similar exhibits. These zoos were no home for subtlety: The animals they contained were exotic to most visitors; the buildings that did the containing reinforced the sensation."  - 'The Elephant in the Room', by Jesse Smith for The Smart Set

Nowadays, most zoos try to recreate as natural an environment for the animals as possible: the zoos role in society is more for preserving & breeding (endangered) animals, than for the exhibit of creatures for our entertainment. Yet that's still a role that they provide in order I assume to bring in funding for breeding programmes. Obviously there are a lot of people who don't like zoos and don't approve of animals being kept in captivity in this way, and you can read an awful lot more about that topic elsewhere on the web. 

The Elephant Gate on Budapester Strasse

Berlin Zoo was opened in 1844, with original animals and birds donated by Friedrich-Wilheim IV. One of the most impressive pieces of architecture is the Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse. The original was built in 1899, but like a large proportion of the zoo, it was destroyed during the war and was reconstructed in 1984 as an exact replica, and is now one of the most photographed sights in Berlin. 

One of my favourite buildings is the giraffe house, but if I had to live in any of them I would choose the Zebra house, which has an actual little house attached to it (see above left image). How lovely to look out of the window and see zebras in your garden in Berlin!

Not all the buildings in the zoo are as lovely. As time has gone on you can see the architectural style of the buildings has evolved. While the elephants were once housed in a beautiful pagoda-style building which post-war has been replaced with something less exciting and probably more practical.

(l-r) The old Pagoda elephant house & sole surviving elephant in 1943/44. The modern elephant house. The latest baby elephant.

But what I really want to know is: when German anthropologists brought back a group of 30 or so Sudanese people in 1878 to study, and kept them in Berlin Zoo, what was their building like? Doesn't it seem astonishing that this happened just over 100 years ago? Perhaps it will be just as astonishing in 100 years time to think that we used to visit and look at animals in zoos today.

Links: (The Berlin Zoo website)
Tours of Berlin Zoo (incl. architecture tour info & booking)
War damage to the Berlin Zoo ostrich house (
World War Zoo Gardener was where I found an interesting article on 'animal civilians' and their plight during world wars & also was the source of the image of the old elephant pagoda house circa 1943/44

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The sad repatriate goes a-walking

The Bierpinzel in Steglitz, Berlin. Just because it cheers me up.

This not knowing whether we are staying or going thing is really putting a dampner on my blogging. It's all I can think about. Well, not all, but it's taking up far too much of my thoughts. It's a difficult subject to  talk about too. My Berlin friends all think we should just stay, and most haven't had to consider a return move (yet), and as I have been talking to my Derby friends about how I feel about the whole thing, I've found it's difficult to really tell them how I feel about the whole thing.

I would love to see inside this place, but it's been closed for quite a long time.
I am not entirely sure that it's not insulting in some way to hear that I just don't really want to come back to Derby. Certainly, the pause that I hear after I say that seems to indicate surprise at the very least. Of course I don't mean it to be insulting; what I am certainly not saying is that I don't want to see my friends again, or that Derby is necessarily a crappy place to live (even if I secretly think that), but I think that's how it's being perceived. It's hard to explain to my friends why I find Berlin far more enjoyable a place to live compared to Derby without it sounding like a total put-down. I start to explain the benefits to living here, but to people who would never consider a move here or perhaps even a move out of Derby, it's almost met with silence.

I have this horrible feeling that when we do return (which is more than likely), I am going to feel more than a little alone. For I have an inkling that I am not going to feel comfortable sharing my real feelings with my friends. If I think about my list of positive things about moving back to Derby, even I am ashamed by it. It's embarrassing.

1. English. Everyone speaks it. Won't that be lovely?
2. The shops. Endless things and all at amazing prices compared to Berlin.

Awful, eh? I'm not counting the closer proximity to friends & family, because I will probably see my family just the same amount as I have done here, and while I will gain my UK friends, I will lose my Germany-based friends.

I've been talking and emailing a few friends who have been through this and they have all found it quite hard to settle back in to UK life. I know what to expect, and I am planning on launching myself into a few projects as soon as I return to try and meet new people and offset some of the sadness I think I am going to feel.

Still, if anyone can think of anything brilliant about my impending move back to the UK,  that I have missed  please let me know. I could use a few more things on that list. Everyone else I know has returned mentions the Peak District. God help me, I never set foot in it before, it's not really my bag, but if that's all there is then I guess I'll need to get me some walking boots & get out there. By the sounds of it the place must be jumping with sad repatriates, so maybe that's a good way to meet like-minded people!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Not yet available for parties...

Yarr me heartie, that's a fine looking sword you've got there!

Shiver me timbers! What a cutlass! 

Um...petals of  eight, or something.
Seriously, what's a blog for if not for showcasing the reason why you are not a professional balloon modeller/ seamstress/ patisserie chef?

Orla's birthday is mere weeks around the corner, and we decided not to go with the original idea of a picnic at the zoo, given that it might be still a little cold, and decided instead to have a party in the apartment. Orla of course wants everyone in her class to come, and while we have the space, I figure it's the least I can do to let her have everyone. Plus, Hamish will love having all the boys to run around squealing with.

The parties that Orla has been to this year so far have been pretty amazing. There's been a beauty parlour party with sleepover (though as she's never 'slept-over' anywhere really, we didn't bother with that part), and the last party a couple of weeks ago was held in the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin. Very impressive! I am half-expecting the next one to be black tie. It seems common practice to hire at least 3 entertainers, and while I don't feel like I need to compete, my inner 'hey-I-could-easily-do-that' has emerged and I am going to try my hand at a few things myself.

For starters, I am now the proud owner of 100 modelling balloons. Stevie came home from work last week to find the apartment still (10 hours later) in need of a good hoovering and tidy up. But instead of asking his usual question "What do you do all day???", he could see as the place was strewn with slightly phallic-looking balloonery and he managed to restrain himself to commenting "Another tough day, I see". Damn straight. Watching YouTube tutorials all afternoon really takes it out of you.

My first efforts have been pretty basic and not exactly perfect, but I figure I have the best part of a month to hone my skills. While I started out thinking "How hard can this be?", I quickly worked out it's a bit harder than I imagined. For starters I can't keep up with the balloon guys on YouTube: they could make 18 cutlasses in the time it takes me to do 1, and I am putting too much air into my balloons because I literally had my eyes squeezed shut when I was attempting to fold a balloon 4 times and then twist it into flower petals. Just didn't happen. Or maybe it did for a millisecond before it exploded. I'm not sure cause I had my eyes shut and was screaming at that point.

But I will not be defeated! A bit more practice and I bet I will master the correct way to get the balloons blown up, and I'll speed up the modelling. I like the idea of being able to do this. I'd like to be the kind of person who could rustle up a doggy balloon while chatting nonchalantly with a friend. That's the kind of show-off I am, ha, ha!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The weather on Facebook will be decidedly chilly

It's finally here. The snow. I've felt like I've been on tenterhooks since November just waiting for the snow and the massive dip in temperature. There's been snow apparently everywhere. It's sparked monumental amounts of weather-moaning on Facebook. German-English relations have become a little tense with the Brits moaning about how cold it is; how they can't face another cold day at the office; how they are just frozen to the bone, and their German-based friends scoff that it's practically summer in the UK where they are still enjoying temperatures in single figures. Not like us! With our -10's!! There are still tables and chairs set up outside the cafes! Don't you have 3 Euro IKEA fleece blankets in lime or red?

Yup. We have had a little bit of snow. A pitiful icing of the stuff. But we are going to "kick the arse out of it" as Stevie would say. We have the woolly knickers, the snowsuits, the nth pair of gloves next in line to be lost at school, and by god, we are going to get some wear out them if it kills us. Don't talk to me about sledges: if we get any more snow (enough that looks like it could last until March at least) we may consider upgrading to wood. God knows, it's far superior for sliding on this half-snow, half-grass that we're having to make do with.

I blame the big boys with the adapted skateboards for cutting up the 'piste'. They have been taking the wheels off, and screwing on lengths of metal tubing to make some approximation of a snowboard/giant ice skate. I would have thought it would have worked with out the piping, but they must know better. It's nice how the grown-ups who've been snowboarding are trying to pass on tips to help them. "You need to put your weight further back on the board. All on the back foot". Except it's a skateboard, there's nowhere further back for their weight to go. And... whoops! Flat on their backs they go, and all the parents get to snigger at the teenagers for a change (it's almost as if they planned their revenge!)

I've enjoyed the snow. I've had two days of sledging, but yesterday Stevie started talking about us going to the open air ice rink today. Last year was horrendous. There are no supports for the little kids to use which means that after an ice-skating break of at least 15 years, we need to attempt to remember how with the added complication of having to hold a small child upright between our legs. Talk about sweating (not to mention shattered) after 2 minutes. I am thinking of coming down with a mystery virus in about 10 minutes time once Stevie gets up out of bed...
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